British Columbia

Civil liberties wades into Pickton inquiry funding dispute

The head of B.C. Civil Liberties Association says the province is short-changing participants in inquiry into murdered and missing women.
Photographs of missing or murdered women from British Columbia are displayed during a Sisters in Spirit vigil to honour the lives of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday October 4, 2009. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The head of B.C. Civil Liberties Association says the province is short-changing participants in inquiry into murdered and  missing women.

Four groups — the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C.and WISH, a drop-in centre for sex workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside — have all said they can't afford to take part in the Pickton inquiry without financial help from the government.

The government has said funding the groups would be too expensive — but B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director David Eby said the government should be able to come up with the funds.

"Frankly it's a very small amount of money. We're talking about $100 million to bring Pickton to trial and to deal with this, about 2 per cent of that is what we're talking about in terms of dealing with systemic issues — about $1.5 to $2 million to provide funding for groups that need to be represented in this inquiry," he said.

Eby said the groups are worried their witnesses will not have the support they need to take questions from lawyers representing police.

"It's a public inquiry and there are adversarial aspects to it. There's a lot at stake for the RCMP, for the Vancouver Police department."

He said it is critical for such groups to provide witnesses, but isn't surprised they don't want to attend without legal support.

"And frankly, with the record around the women going missing from the Downtown Eastside, you can understand why they might need that accompaniment."

'Height of unfairness'

Eby said his group has not yet made a decision but rather will wait and see what other groups decide.

"We're not going to participate if groups representing sex-trade workers and other marginalized populations like aboriginal people aren't able to participate in their own inquiry."

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has participated in previous public inquiries, including one into the death of Frank Paul, who died in police custody in Vancouver. Eby said his group and others were funded by the government during those hearings.

Former judge and one-time attorney general Wally Oppal asked the government to fund additional groups in May, and repeated his recommendations earlier this month in a strongly worded letter to the provincial government.

Oppal said expecting non-profit groups to pay their own way while agencies such as the RCMP and Vancouver police will all have government-funded lawyers was the "height of unfairness."

Oppal will not comment further on the matter, but a spokesman for the inquiry said there's nothing else Oppal can do.

"The commissioner would prefer that all groups that have been given standing were able to participate, and it's disappointing that funding wasn't provided," Chris Freimond said in an interview

"He feels that he's done what he can as far as trying to convince the provincial government to provide funding. He does accept that that's the government's decision, and he does not see much point in continuing to pursue that."

The inquiry will examine why the Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to catch Pickton as he spent years murdering sex workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside until his arrest in 2002.

Pickton was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, although the DNA from 33 women were found on his farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. He told police that he had killed 49 women.

With files from The Canadian Press